Cubs

Cubs head into offseason targeting center field, second base upgrades

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USA TODAY

Cubs head into offseason targeting center field, second base upgrades

The Cubs had many stellar individual offensive seasons in 2019. There is no questioning that.

Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras enjoyed resurgent campaigns; Javier Baez was one of the NL’s best hitters before suffering a thumb injury; Jason Heyward had his best offensive season on the North Side, while Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, arguably, had career years at the plate.

And yet, among those performances were two constants: the suboptimal production from Cubs center fielders and second basemen.

The Cubs used five different center fielders in 2019, with Albert Almora Jr. (80) and Jason Heyward (74) receiving the bulk of the starts. This pales in comparison to the team’s second base rotation, however, where six players started at least 10 games.

“Center field and second base were the two positions where we had the least production this year, we had the most trouble finding consistent performance,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at Monday’s end-of-season press conference.  

Cubs second basemen posted a combined .220/.301/.383 (.684 OPS) slash line, all team lows (sans pitchers and designated hitters). League-wide, they ranked 28th in average and 21st in OPS, though Ben Zobrist's four-month leave of absence certainly played a role here.

Cubs center fielders weren’t much better, ranking second-worst among the team’s positional groups with a .232/.305/.388 (.693 OPS) slash line. League-wide, they checked in at 20th in both average and OPS.

Almora finished the season with career lows in average and on-base percentage. This led the Cubs to: a) play Heyward in center field more, b) acquire Nick Castellanos and c) make Almora a defensive replacement.

Heyward’s final numbers were negatively affected by his August stint leading off — where he is less comfortable hitting than other spots. But with no better options, he essentially took one for the team, though former manager Joe Maddon probably could’ve pulled the plug on the experiment sooner.

Coincidentally, Heyward moved to the leadoff spot around the same time he became the Cubs' full-time center fielder. So, while he had a solid season overall, his toughest stretch came as a center fielder, which "helped" drag down the team's overall numbers for the position.

Some form of change is coming to the Cubs roster this offseason. And while Epstein admitted center field/leadoff is a position they’d look to upgrade, it’s not like it’ll be an easy task.

“We do have in-house options, but being transparent, of course it’s an area where you look to upgrade and see if you can get the total package, with the prototypical center fielder who can also leadoff,” Epstein said. “If you look at the landscape of center fielders in the game, it’s not exactly a position with great surplus or an overabundance of options out there."

So, what do the Cubs do if there’s no clear option for them to acquire?

“You just have to be realistic,” Epstein said. “If you spend all your time waiting for that next guy who solves all your problems to be there, you might pass on some good options, where you can put things together with a platoon or use a player that you currently have and compliment him with a more attainable player from outside the organization.”

The Cubs have an intriguing second base option in Nico Hoerner, who can also play center field, if needed. The 22-year-old joined the Cubs in September, filling in at shortstop for the injured Baez and Addison Russell. Barring a trade, Baez will be the Cubs starting shortstop next season, but Hoerner's contact-oriented approach makes him a good fit for the Cubs lineup, possibly as a leadoff hitter.

Epstein was complimentary of how Hoerner responded to his September promotion, though he added that the Cubs haven’t determined where the 22-year-old will start the 2020 season.

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A,” he said. “It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something, under the extraordinary circumstances, that he could handle.”

If Hoerner starts the 2020 season in the minor leagues, other Cubs second basemen under contract include Russell, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia, David Bote and Ian Happ.

The Cubs demoted Russell to Triple-A twice this season, though he hit just .237/.308/.391 in 82 big-league games. He also missed the first month of the season while serving a domestic violence suspension.

Descalso was hampered by an ankle injury for much of the season, which affected his performance at the plate. Kemp brought the Cubs a contact-oriented approach, but he hit just .183 after they acquired him at the trade deadline.

Garcia showed promise, though he struggled to hit breaking pitches. Bote and Happ did contribute on consistent basis offensively, but they saw more time at third base and in the outfield, respectively.

Point being, there’s no option that jumps off the page right now. Whether it’s center field, second base or elsewhere, Epstein and Co. won’t hesitate to make an upgrade, should they see fit.

“We struggled as an organization this year to make sure that with the major league team, the whole was as good or better than the sum of the parts,” he said. “I think we had a lot of good individual performances, we had a lot of talent and ability.

“I think if we do our job the right way, we’re going to have a lot of talent next year. We’re going to score a lot of runs, we’re going to prevent a lot of runs.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB Insider Jeff Passan talks about Cubs offseason plan

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB Insider Jeff Passan talks about Cubs offseason plan

02:00 Jeff Passan predicts a significant trade or two for the Cubs this winter

03:00 Passan says the Cubs will be retooling, not rebuilding, because they still have good players

04:00 Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are the most likley to be traded

05:00 Passan explains the perception of Contreras around the league

07:00 How active will the Cubs be in free agency?

08:00 Any chance the DH will come to the NL soon?

09:00 What would a Cubs team with Anthony Rendon look like (even though it's very unlikely)

12:00 What are you more disappointed in? The haul the Cubs gave up to the White Sox or the results they have gotten from Jose Quintana?

19:00 Is Willson Contreras the most likely Cubs player to be traded this winter?

21:00 If the DH is eventually coming to the National League, is it worth hanging on to Kyle Schwarber even longer?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

Subscribe:

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Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

While Cubs fans sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see if Theo Epstein's front office trades away a core player — and which guy that might be — the question has really become more of a when

Both because it seems likely Epstein shakes up this Cubs roster this winter and because there's natural curiosity about the timing of such a move. 

If the Cubs don't get the type of return they're seeking for players like Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant, they are not going to trade just for trade's sake. But it's clear the roster needs a change and the front office has also shifted a good amount of focus on the long-term future of the organization — beyond 2021, when most of the core players are set to hit free agency.

As for when a major trade may come down, there's really no indication on that front. The MLB Hot Stove season has taken longer and longer to get going in recent winters and that very much appears to be the case again this 2019-20 offseason as many teams — including the Cubs — have just recently finalized their coaching staff and key front office hires.

At the GM Meetings last week, the Cubs said they were in the early stages of any offseason moves and had just started to exchange names with other teams about who is and isn't available.

They're not pigeonholing themselves into any one avenue for how the winter will play out.

"Sometimes you get a feel for the marketplace or kernels of ideas and they end up coming true and you look back and you're like, 'ah, that feel we had really matched the whole tenor of the offseason with certain teams,'" Epstein said. "Other times, you can go through a whole Russian novel's worth of twists and turns in an offseason depending on one or two player moves or clubs changing course or being able to execute things or not execute things. 

"We'll see. I think the important thing is to keep a really open mind and be prepared for all different permutations of how things can work out."

As for what shape the trades may come in, be ready for anything. 

The Cubs have said they still have no issues trading within the division, so even in a year where they're planning on competing in the wide-open NL Central, they're more concerned with improving their organization in the long run than worrying about potentially making a rival better.

Epstein also said they're not afraid of acquiring a player with only one year of team control left, as long as it makes sense. But there's no reason right now for the Cubs to mortgage the future to go all-in on 2020.

"It just depends on the player and the fit and the acquisition cost, and everything else," Epstein said. "I think we're like every team — to one extent or another, we're trying to balance an immediate future vs. a longer-term future. We knew that as we got closer to the end of the period of club control with some of our best players, we had to be increasingly mindful of if you put the longer-term future rather than just the short-term. 

"It's a bit of a transition for us, but it doesn't mean you rule anything out, even if it's something short-term. But you try to strike that right balance."

The Cubs also insist they're not locked into adding any one specific position or type of player. For example, they're not only looking to trade for centerfielders or leadoff guys — even if both are clear areas of need in the short-term.

Anything is on the table, which makes sense considering trading a core guy would also open up a hole elsewhere on the roster. If Contreras is dealt, the Cubs could feel pretty confident about Victor Caratini sliding into a larger role, but they would obviously need more catching depth both in the short- and long-term.

"I still think we have a lot of pieces that can move around the board a bit," Jed Hoyer said. "As we think about what we're gonna do [and] have conversations the whole winter, there's a big picture element to it where I think we're not gonna be entirely married to this position or that position — making moves that make sense both long-term and short-term. 

"We do have pieces that you can move around that makes us able to do that. We don't have particular holes that we feel like we have to spend the whole winter trying to fill, but rather we can make some moves maybe a little bit more strategically."

So the Cubs are saying all the right things, but what does that mean? 

For starters, it doesn't appear any major move is approaching on the horizon and regardless of what the first trade or free agent signing is, it will be just one piece to a larger puzzle. This is shaping up to be a crucial offseason in every aspect of the organization, so the final judgement of the winter will be the most important one.

But as the Cubs try to put that puzzle together and make their big-picture plans a reality, they're not going to get sidetracked by the incessant rumors and aim to continue trying to shield their players from a similar fate.

"We can't chase down every rumor," Hoyer said. "People are gonna put stuff out there about our guys and there's definitely some clickbait opportunity about our guys. We have a lot of guys who have been All-Stars and you can put a story out pretty easily that gets clicks. 

"One of the things about our players in general is we're in a big market, they're used to having their name in trade rumors, they're used to having their names out there. I think they have a sense of what's real and what's not real. But we can't chase down every rumor. We can't deny every rumor because we know that's going to happen. We have to live with that. We're not gonna add fuel to that fire, that's for sure." 

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